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Taste the Future: Ordering Ahead Meets Fast Food

Fast-food chains are catching on to what GrubHub and Seamless have known all along...


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It was right around lunch time when I decided I wanted a burrito, specifically from Chipotle. But the line there is always so long during lunchtime... What a difficult life I have.

It's an age-old predicament—this "waiting in line" business—but it's increasingly avoidable with mobile technology: Don't wait in line—pre-order with an app!

Ordering take-out from your phone is not new. GrubHub, Foodler, and Seamless have been doing it for a few years now. But now the major fast food chains are starting to catch on. In addition to Chipotle, Panda Express just launched a mobile ordering app. Starbucks is adding similar functionality to its app, and McDonald's is testing an pre-order service at some of its locations in Georgia.

Even Square, the mobile payments service popular among trendy small businesses, recently tried to get in on the action with its Square Order app.

Ordering take-out from your phone is not new, but major fast food chains are starting to catch on.

The advantages here are pretty obvious: You don't have to wait in line, and you can pay ahead.

Of course, the effectiveness of these services really depends on the retailers and restaurants in question. For example, when I went to pick up my burrito from Chipotle, it was quickly obvious that none of the employees checked to see if any new online orders had come in, so I had to wait for them to actually make my burrito.

There was also the issue of jockeying with customers for the attention of the cashier, as Chipotle doesn't have a separate line for online orders. One can imagine this tiered service structure quickly creating chaos. While it's nice to avoid lines, it leaves you wondering if it's worth the stress of being that guy.

But for brands with forthcoming mobile ordering services, these problems are just market research. Starbucks, for instance, is testing how long it takes for its hot beverages to cool, according to Re/code. In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year, Starbucks chief digital officer Adam Brotman insisted that mobile ordering is something customers have been demanding.

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The effectiveness of these services really depends on the retailers and restaurants in question.

Indeed all restaurants should be interested in mobile ordering, as it provides the opportunity to connect with customers in new ways, and to gain valuable data about their preferences.

As ordering ahead becomes more and more common, the various logistical hiccups associated with the service will probably fix themselves. These apps have a lot of potential to save consumers time during their morning commute or lunch break—at least until everyone starts ordering ahead, which would only transition the queue from the storefront to the cloud.

The other issue here is the number of the apps that could emerge: No one wants to have a mobile ordering app for each and every restaurant they visit. In addition to Chipotle, McDonald's, Starbucks and Panda Express, each of the following restaurants are working on mobile ordering services of their own: Taco Bell, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Boloco, and Subway.

Clearly, the market is in need of some sort of universal mobile ordering app for pickups. The only question is, who will provide it? GrubHub? Seamless? Square?

All I know is that if I can avoid long afternoon lines at Starbucks, I will be a very happy customer.

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